Ultimecia’s most dangerous weapon is breaking the rules

My all-time favorite fighting game character is Aganos from the 2013 reboot of Killer Instinct. Rather than just having a slightly different set of punches and kicks, Aganos completely rewrites the rules of the game. He’s almost twice as large as the smallest character. He doesn’t flinch at most attacks. He can change the size of the stage to trap his opponent in close combat. If you’re fighting against Aganos, you’re no longer playing Killer Instinct. You’re playing a new game on his terms.

I love when games upend the rules like that. When you play a game for hours and hours, you build a model of how that game works in your head. You have a certain set of assumptions locked in, like how the mechanics work, or what actions are available to you, and you’re always playing that game in your head. You can imagine what will happen in different situations. You know what outcomes are likely.

The most disruptive thing a game can do is change those assumptions. Suddenly your expectations are off. You don’t have a roadmap in your head for how it’s supposed to play out. No matter how good you’ve gotten at the game, you’re playing a different game now, and the challenge is to learn how to play it all over again. This is why Baba Is You is one of my favorite games: it keeps breaking and re-breaking the rules, over and over, non-stop.

Sometimes the Final Fantasy series deploys gimmicks like this, like Oeilvert in IX that prevents you from using magic, or the Lodestone Cavern in IV which inventively forces you not to use metal equipment. But it’s never the ultimate challenge of the game, just a gimmick.

Final Fantasy VIII‘s final dungeon, on the other hand, puts the gimmick front and center: it takes away everything.

When you start Ultimecia Castle, you’re blocked from using any of your commands except Fight. You can’t even use save points. All you have are your physical attacks, which is a significant break from a game that has been heavy on magic and summons. As you beat the dungeon’s increasingly difficult sub-bosses, you can slowly unlock your other commands, one at a time, and you’re forced to make some tough judgment calls about what you want to prioritize. Is it more important for you to use items or draw magic?

The brilliant part of this gimmick is that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. You’ve already been doing a less extreme version of this throughout the whole game! The Junction system in FFVIII allows you to swap out every command in your battle menu except for Fight, so for the preceding 40+ hours, you’ve been making smaller-stakes decisions about which abilities you’re keeping in play. That’s especially if you’ve been using the GF specialty commands, like Recover or Card, which take one slot away from a more traditional command like Magic.

Ultimecia Castle throws all that into chaos at a larger scale. You’ve gotten used to playing one version of the game. Now you’re playing a new one. THIS is the type of challenge a final dungeon should offer. It’s not just a parade of bosses and tank-y enemies. It yanks away every lesson you’ve learned and dares you to adjust.